A young woman who just beat breast cancer smiles as she sits at her desk at work.

Grey’s Anatomy saves a life

An episode of Grey’s Anatomy may have saved Jenny Saliba’s life.

One evening, just under a year ago, the 29-year-old was at her home in Hamilton watching an episode of the popular medical drama where a young patient was diagnosed with breast cancer. Something struck Jenny – she’d never considered breast cancer a threat, and she’d never thought to check for it. In that moment, for the first time ever, she felt her breasts for lumps.

Just a few months earlier, Jenny had been finishing up a year of teaching in Columbia when unusual and worsening stomach issues forced her back to Canada for medical care. When doctors couldn’t make any conclusions about what was causing her symptoms, she was booked for a colonoscopy for the following fall for a closer look. Jenny had no idea her entire life would change in the meantime.

But that one night, alone on her couch, the realization something wasn’t right hit Jenny like a rogue wave crashing in to the sand. There, as her hand searched her breast for something – anything – she found a baseball-sized lump. A baseball-sized lump that had gone completely undetected until then.

A lump was found… now what?

“My whole life changed in that moment,” says Jenny. “I was hysterical.”

Frantic and full of worry, Jenny visited a walk-in clinic to have a doctor validate what she had felt (her family doctor was in Toronto). She was told there was a possibility that it was fibroadenoma, a condition where solid, but non-cancerous, lumps form in the breast. Through a series of tests and scans, Jenny hung on to that possibility with all her might. After all, she was only 29 – what else could it be?

Eventually, Jenny found herself at Juravinski Cancer Centre awaiting the results of her biopsy – a procedure that took a sample of her breast tissue to determine its make-up. Once again she sat in silence and fear, being pummeled by the waves of her thoughts which were moving in all directions at once. But this time, she was sitting in a chair in a hospital room waiting on the moment of truth. The moment when Jenny would learn that she had breast cancer.

“I realized that it wasn’t a death sentence.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer

“That day, my life completely shifted,” says Jenny. “I thought, ‘This can’t be me, I can’t have cancer’.”

Doctors at JCC confirmed that Jenny had “triple positive” breast cancer. She had no family history, no genetic risk. It was an out-of-the-blue diagnosis – one you simply can’t prepare for.

“Although breast cancer does occur in young women, it is rare,” says Dr. Richard Tozer, chief of oncology and one of Jenny’s doctors at Juravinski Cancer Centre. “There aren’t many people in Jenny’s situation.”

With determination, Jenny decided early on to harness the weight of her cancer diagnosis and direct that energy toward living life as best as she possibly could. Her devastation was channeled in to inspiration.

Dr. Tozer says Jenny’s optimism is contagious.

“Jenny is a rock,” says Dr. Tozer. “What has helped her get through treatment is asking questions and living life as it comes. She’s a very wise young person.”

Michele Cardoso, Jenny’s radiation therapist at JCC, agrees: “Jenny is one of those people that emanate light; her cancer experience has tuned her in to living life more fully and that is inspirational.”

“I decided I was going to take my life in to my own hands,” she says. “I realized that it wasn’t a death sentence. The more I read other people’s stories and researched breast cancer, the less afraid I became. I started to see it as a blessing.”

Breast cancer survivor recovers at the gym.

In the months that followed, Jenny underwent 25 rounds of radiation at JCC. She started a new fitness routine. She spent her summer receiving eight rounds of chemotherapy and then in August, she got married. In November, she had both of her breasts surgically removed. And today, she’s cancer-free.

Life after cancer 

“There is life during cancer,” she says. “And there’s life after cancer, too.”

“Cancer at 30 isn’t more difficult, it’s just a different conversation.”

But Jenny’s journey isn’t over; she has follow-up appointments with her team at Juravinski Cancer Centre every three weeks, and she has to take medication to help prevent the cancer from re-occurring. Its side effects include early menopause and infertility.

“Cancer at 30 isn’t more difficult, it’s just a different conversation. Topics like infertility come up. You need to re-evaluate your life plans.”

In talking openly about her breast cancer journey and the challenges throughout, Jenny hopes she can help other women feel less isolated and afraid.

“I feel so blessed that my life has completely changed,” says Jenny. “Now, I have the opportunity to speak out and help support other women.”

Above all, the most important message that Jenny has is:

“Learn how to do a breast self-exam, and pick one day once a month to feel your breasts.

If we learn to care for ourselves and our bodies the way we care for other people, we’ll be able to heal from anything.”

Dr. Sne running a test of the LaparoGuard technology in the operating room

New equipment aims to make surgery safer

Advancements in technology have greatly aided in making many procedures and surgeries safer for patients. This includes laparoscopic surgery, which has become a common approach over the past 40 years for a variety of surgical procedures.

In laparoscopic surgery, a long, slim tool is inserted through small cuts into the abdomen. The tool is equipped with a very small camera and light on the end. Additional instruments are inserted through a similar technique. Images from the camera are fed to a screen, and the surgeon carries out the procedure by watching their movements on the screen. It’s used for many procedures including gall bladder removal, hernia surgery and colon resection.

Dr. Sne testing the LaparoGuard system

There’s still room for improvement

As a minimally invasive surgery, the incisions are much smaller. This reduces the patient’s risk of infection and significantly reduces the hospital length of stay, overall leading to a faster recovery.

Despite the benefits laparoscopic surgery offers, there is still room for improvement. Since surgeons are working within a much smaller space, it can sometimes be tricky to keep their multiple tools within a clearly defined safe zone. This can result in unintentional minor injury to surrounding tissues. The injury is often recognized and treated when it occurs, but if it goes unnoticed it can eventually cause complications.

Finding solutions with technology

To tackle this problem a local medical device company, Mariner Endosurgery, has developed a new device called LaparoGuard. It allows surgeons to identify and create a safe zone that the surgeon must stay within during laparoscopic procedures. If the instruments unintentionally move out of the safe zone, Laparoguard sends an audio and visual signal to the operating team.

After rigorous testing and approvals, the equipment is ready to pilot in a research trial at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS).

LaparoGuard uses innovative image-enhancing technology, similar to what’s used in a fighter jet.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of the safety and precision of minimally-invasive surgery in recent years,” says Dr. Niv Sne, trauma surgeon at HHS and principal investigator for the LaparoGuard trial. “Still, no surgery is without its risks. This trial may present surgical teams with a more advanced option to conduct laparoscopic procedures with even fewer risks to the patient.”

LaparoGuard uses innovative image-enhancing technology, similar to what’s used in a fighter jet. It’s described by the makers as augmented reality without a headset. LaparoGuard is installed in one operating room at Hamilton General Hospital for the pilot, which begins in the next few weeks.

LaparoGuard tools being used in a test at the Hamilton General Hospital

“We’re excited to be working alongside Dr. Sne and the surgical teams at Hamilton Health Sciences,” says Mitch Wilson, president & chief operating officer of Mariner. “Their extensive experience conducting laparoscopic procedures and their interest in exploring new technology to improve patient safety and surgical precision is invaluable.”

A collaborative team

This collaboration between HHS and Mariner Endosurgery is one of the projects funded by Health Ecosphere, an innovation pipeline program that assists in commercializing health solutions. This, along with a grant from Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation, helped make this trial possible.

“Now we’ll use feedback from HHS surgeons to ensure it’s efficient for the team that’s using it.”

The surgeons at HHS’ Hamilton General Hospital are excited to explore the new technology.

“At this point we’re confident LaparoGuard can help make laparoscopic surgery safer for patients. Now we’ll use feedback from HHS surgeons to ensure it’s efficient for the team that’s using it,” says Mitch. “We’re looking forward to the results.”

Wesley and his grandfather in the pool

RJCHC helps kids Get Wet ‘N Fit in the pool

Swimming is one of 7-year-old Wesley David’s favourite things to do.

Since he was five, he has been participating in triathlons: swimming with his life jacket, cycling on an adapted bicycle, and using his walker for the running portion of the race.

Wesley was diagnosed with a brain tumour at 13 months old. He later had a stroke related to his treatment and has had ongoing physiotherapy ever since.

His physiotherapist at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre (RJCHC) heard about his hobby and suggested he get involved with a new program called Get Wet ‘n Fit.

Wesley and his grandfather in the pool

Get Wet ‘n Fit is a community-based pool program for clients of RJCHC with diagnoses including but not limited to muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. The six-week program was held in partnership with the City of Hamilton at Westmount Recreation Centre.

The program was initiated by physiotherapists KC Chavez and Janet Mannen and occupational therapist Brooke Wardrope in the Developmental Pediatrics and Rehabilitation (DPR) program at RJCHC and supported by volunteers. Volunteers allow more children to access these programs by providing one to one support in the water.

“Overall, there is a mutual benefit as volunteering not only enriches our services, but provides meaningful experiences for those who give back,” said Brooke.

Morgan Lewandowski was one of the volunteers who expressed gratitude for being able to participate in the program. She said, “It made me happy to see all of the children having so much fun as well as getting so much exercise. This was one of the most impactful experiences I have had so far and I am beyond lucky to have been a part of it.”

Card that Morgan gave to the program organizer
Volunteers like Morgan enriched the program and were provided with a meaningful experience.

During the program, children worked through their treatment plans as well as group exercises like stretching, range of motion exercises, and some cardiovascular conditioning.

“Each child had individualized goals to progress through which were developed based on their functional levels. A balance challenge was conducted in the first and last sessions to assess stability and strength against challenging variable currents,” said Brooke.

“Group activities provided an opportunity for children to interact with each other and develop peer relationships.”

Wesley’s grandpa Lark can attest to the benefits of the program. He was often in the water with his grandson, while grandma came to watch.

Wesley in the pool with his grandfather

“The program got the kids excited and that excitement promotes exercise. That exercise is the therapy they are looking for,” said grandpa.

Since starting the program, Wesley’s balance has improved as well as movement in his legs. Plus, he gets more physical exercise with the assistance of the water.

Wesley’s grandma Connie said it was wonderful to watch Wesley in the pool because he was able to walk, run, splash, and play without the use of his wheelchair or walker.

“It looked like there were no limitations. He was like any other 7-year-old.”

Although the program has completed until the next session dates are released, grandma and grandpa still take Wesley to Westmount Recreation Centre’s “family swim” to make use of the location’s accessible features.

Wesley gets to spend quality time with his grandparents while getting the added benefit of physiotherapy – all the while enjoying one of his favourite activities. It’s a win-win.